Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain- Know What’s Best for Your Deck

Oil vs water based deck stain conversation will be here for sometime because of individual preferences and their readiness to back their choice!

That said, sometimes it becomes difficult to determine the most suitable deck stain for your project, especially if you need to choose between oil-based or water-based formulas.

However, your decision becomes easier when you can distinguish the two and appreciate their unique attributes. So today, let’s engage in an in-depth discussion on oil vs water based deck stain.

The choice of the deck stain to use comes down to the exposure level to elements, the type of wood, and its durability.

For instance, oil-based formulas are suitable for high traffic areas, harsh weather conditions, and lumber without natural rot protective qualities.

On the other hand, water-based stains are perfect for cypress, cedar, and redwood, with natural protection against rot.

On top of that, oil-based products require mineral spirits during a clean-up, whereas water-based stains only need soap and water for an excellent cleaning spree.

Therefore, it would be best to assess your project requirements before deciding on a formula.

Also, read through this piece for more insights about these two stains to understand them much better.

Oil-based and water-based deck stains have distinct differences, advantages, and disadvantages that you should know.

Also, generally speaking, water-based formulas feature a longer life span than oil-based ones. 

It is prudent to evaluate your commitment to stain application, expectations, and upkeep preferences before making your choice.

This way, you will not have unrealistic presumptions of the stain and get frustrated when the rubber meets the road.

But first, let us delve into a detailed evaluation of each stain for a better conclusion.

Oil-Based Stains

General Finish stain for Mahogany deckOil-based deck stains have been in the market for decades.

And although manufacturers have conducted multiple formula changes in the past, they are still as strong and durable as ever.

Even better, brands keep adopting more environmentally friendly ingredients to keep the product fit for household use.

Additionally, oil-based formulas use synthetic oil, paraffin, and natural plant-based oil such as tung, linseed, and soybean to keep them less toxic.

Authorities also prohibit oil-based stains that overlook VOC jurisdictions and rules to foster a safe environment.

Oil sheds water naturally. Hence, deck stains with an oil base are ideal for any wood surface and offer superior protection against moisture damage.

In addition, they prevent rot and are perfect for wood without in-built natural rot-resistant attributes, like spruce, pine, and fir.

Mahogany, cedar, cypress, teak, and redwood have natural oils that make them rot resistant.

But you can still use oil-based stains on them. The formula inhibits mold and mildew growth and will keep your expensive wood intact for a long, long duration.

Even so, it would be best to check the product label and manufacturer’s recommendations as different brands feature varying functions.

Also, you can consult with a professional if you are a newbie to get the most suitable stain.

Oil-based formulas soak deep into the lumber’s cell structure and prevent moisture from causing wood cracks, splits, warps, and checks.

Better still, the deeper the liquid penetrates, the better the protection. Therefore, it would be best to pick the correct product and prepare the wood well for proper adhesion.

In addition, oil based deck stains are suitable for wood susceptible to harsh conditions, such as decks, pergolas, fences, docks, and other outdoor surfaces and structures.

The product also handles freeze-thaw cycles better than other stains. So, you should consider it for climates with sub-zero temperatures during certain seasons.

Please use the correct application supplies and techniques to facilitate a desirable outcome. You can use a sponge, brush, sprayer, or roller.

Also, it would be best to get a good quality natural bristle brush and stain several boards at a time for uniform coverage.

On top of that, oil-based deck stains require about 24 to 72 hours to dry. However, this duration depends on the resin amount and the existing climatic conditions.

Thus, it is advisable to check the product label for the correct timelines.

It is okay to use mineral spirits to clean oil stains from a surface.

But ensure that you follow the correct disposal strategies and recommendations. Better still, you can go for products that allow soap and water clean-up.

Nonetheless, oil-based deck stains are easy to use, and applying maintenance coats is quite effortless.

All you need to do is clean the surface, allow it to dry, and reapply the same formula.

Also, you can use a deck stripping product to elevate the grain before reapplying the stain.

Lastly, the stain should last for at least five to seven years before you reapply it.

In addition, it is possible to increase this life span with a suitable maintenance routine and by keeping the deck dry.

Key Benefits

  • Oil-based stains deliver a uniform finish and will not create lap marks. Also, it is easier to blend the brush strokes, thanks to the product’s longer dry time.
  • These formulas are easy to apply as they soak into the wood effortlessly. In addition, they adhere to the surface tightly and fade away instead of peeling. Therefore, you will not get an ugly-looking deck if the project fails.
  • Your surface will enjoy superior protection from harsh weather conditions, like excess ultraviolet rays.
  • Oil formulas deliver a more durable finish and keep the deck looking good for an extended duration.
  • They enhance the wood’s beauty, especially when you have hardwood surfaces. Even better, the stains come in various pigments to accommodate multiple projects.


  • Oil deck stains have higher volatile organic compounds harmful to the environment. Therefore, please use them outdoors or work in a well-ventilated space when staining indoor surfaces.
  • These stains do not last as long as water-based deck stains. Hence, you’ll need to reapply them more often.
  • You have to work with a longer drying time of up to 48 hours, which is an issue if you live in a wet or humid climate. In addition, the formula may not be suitable when you are in a hurry to stain and use the surface.
  • Believe it or not, the resins in oil-based deck stains have materials that are a food source for mildew, mold, and algae. Therefore, the deck may turn black over time.
  • Oil-based products have strong odors and are flammable. Hence, please keep them away from pets, children, and work in an open space.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based deck stains are a recent addition to the stain products collection, unlike their oil-based counterparts, who have been in the market for a long time.

Also, they continue to undergo formula improvements to make them more durable and environmentally friendly.

Most water-based formulas have liquid dispersion polymers, plasticizing agents, and antiseptic to combat mold and mildew growth.

They also have resins that block excessive UV rays from harming the surface. So, you can expect the deck to remain intact and lovely for an extended duration.

Image of General finish for walnutOn top of that, you will observe additives like zinc in the formula that assists in resisting fungal growth and rot.

Even better, there are two-component water-based stains with a polyurethane and acrylic blend, which are less vulnerable to weathering.

Hence, you do not have to stress about a premature product failure.

Water-based products allow the lumber to breathe, and thus moisture can seep into the wood grain and then evaporate.

More so, the stain’s skin does not trap moisture in the wood and therefore discourages mold and mildew infestation.

Also, although water-based deck stains are VOC compliant and pride themselves more eco-friendly than oil-based products, some brands feature toxic solvents, like glycol ether and zinc. So, it is prudent to check the product label and ingredients before purchase.

On the flip side, since these stains do not have oils, they are more suitable for redwood, cedar, cypress, and other wood types that naturally resist oils. Also, you can use them to restain oil-based surfaces.

Most water-based stains have pigments to protect the surface against ultraviolet rays.

But they can also obscure and hide the wood grain. Thus, it is better to avoid them for naturally beautiful wood types.

Alternatively, you can get a clear stain product with sufficient ultraviolet rays protection.

But you’ll have to do a thorough check of the formula’s benefits and drawbacks to get the most suitable formula.

Fortunately, it is possible to get your desired color while still meeting the required UV resistance standard. So, your time and efforts will eventually pay off.

Water-based stains are easy to apply. Use quality nylon or synthetic bristle brush, a sprayer, sponge, or roller.

Then, ensure that you spread the stain evenly to avoid overlap lines. In addition, work end to end on multiple boards to deliver full coverage.

The formula requires two applications to deliver a durable finish. Thus, you are better off getting enough liquid for the staining project.

Also, remember to apply the recoat after four hours for better adhesion and let the surface dry for at least 48 hours before light use.

Also, please note that though water-based formulas dry faster than oil-based ones, they may need up to two weeks to deliver a protective film. So, assess the surface well for dryness before resuming regular use.

On top of that, the stain is easy to clean up with water, and you will not incur additional maintenance costs.

However, the effluent after cleaning is not environmentally friendly. And it is safe to adopt safety precautions during disposal.

Key Benefits

  • Thanks to their unmatched UV resistance and color retention abilities, water-based stains guarantee more longevity.
  • The products are not a food source for mildew, mold, and algae and reduce their growth potential. In addition, stains with zinc nano-particles have better resistance to mildew growth.
  • Cleaning a water-based finish is straightforward as you do not need potential solvents.
  • Water-based deck stains dry quickly and allow you to resume light use in one to two hours after application.
  • They have a low odor and are non-flammable, thus suitable for indoor woodworking projects.
  • You will not get trapped moisture into the wood grain, thanks to the stain’s breathable attributes.
  • Premium quality stains are easy to maintain, especially when the finish begins to fade. All you need is to clean the surface with soap and water and reapply a maintenance coat. Even better, you do not need to sand or strip the previous finish, and thus you’ll save energy, resources, and time.
  • Lastly, water-based products can adhere to oil-based surfaces without intense wood cleaning and preparation.


  • Water-based stains do not penetrate the wood well compared to their oil-based counterparts. Therefore, it is best to prepare the surface sufficiently to enhance adhesion.
  • They are prone to flaking, peeling, and chipping, and thus they require you to strictly follow the correct application procedures. In addition, you will have to reapply the formula after a short duration.
  • Water-based finishes may appear patchy, especially if you do not give them enough drying time.
  • It would be best to sand between coats to deliver a desirable finish.
  • Some water-based products mask the wood grain. Therefore, they are unsuitable for projects highlighting the wood’s natural beauty.
  • These formulas need more time and care during applications. Shortcuts may mess your work and even deliver a failed product.
  • Water-based stains have more trouble soaking into the wood, and the finish may peel within no time if you overapply it. So, only apply as much stain as the lumber can absorb.

That said, oil-based and water-based products deliver sophisticated results when you use them correctly.

Also, you are more likely to get the best from the product when you acknowledge its benefits and learn how to manage the drawbacks.

Remember that oil-based formulas are easy to apply and require less effort during the process, but they have a shorter lifespan.

On the other hand, water-based stains need more effort and time, but they will give you more durability.

Also, they have more mildew, mold, and algae problems and thus require more maintenance.

Nonetheless, you will always get the best results with the most suitable product.

Therefore, your primary task is to determine your project needs and scout for the best deck stain. This way, you’ll get value for your time and money.

So, which deck stain is better? Well, your choice depends on multiple factors, like the wood’s condition, the product’s application procedure, the weather, and the manufacturer’s instructions.

Please note that quality products are more expensive, last longer, and offer superior protection.

Moreover, in the long run, you won’t pay a significant difference between getting a cheap formula and reapplying the finish every two years versus every five years using a more expensive and better quality product.

Even worse, you may have to replace the deck when the inexpensive stain fails, and the costs will be much greater.

Therefore, it is prudent to do your assessment and get a durable product.

In addition, consider existing weather conditions when choosing a deck stain. F

or instance, go for an oil-based formula when working in extremely hot or cold areas and choose a water-based product for woods with natural oil.

It is also essential to consider getting the most suitable stain color. Below are the primary factors to consider for the best outcome.

Test the Colors

Here, you audition the colors and test them on the wood you want to coat. Pick a color and try it out on a hidden spot on your deck.

This way, you’ll see whether the color is compatible with the wood without messing up your project.

On top of that, remember that a dried color can be very different from its wet version.

Therefore, please avoid ruling out a color before trying it and let it dry to the touch before purchasing a stain.

Consider the Wood Type

Wood undertones can change the stain’s appearance. For example, pine features green undertones, requiring you to consider a suitable color that enhances or cancels them out.

So, you are safer evaluating the wood’s natural tone before settling on a product.

Additionally, the type of wood will affect the outcome. For instance, deck stains suitable for pressure-treated wood are not ideal for redwoods and cedar decks.

Also, please conduct some rotten wood repairs before adopting a new stain color.

It is prudent to consider the amount of grain in the lumber. Certain woods deliver a glorified grain pattern after the stain dries.

Therefore, think about the lumber’s overall look to pick an ideal pigment.

Also, remember that wood remains the most common option for decks. More so, deck owners now adopt more expensive hardwoods, such as ipe or mahogany, for their projects.

So, they are better off paying more for a transparent wood stain that highlights the wood’s texture and grain. 

Fortunately, deck stains are available in multiple colors to accommodate various project needs. They are as follows:

  • Clear Pigment. This color is the best when you love the wood’s natural look. In addition, it is the best alternative for expensive or new lumber, and you can expect the finish to last a year or two. 
  • Semi-Transparent. This hue affects the final look of the surface, and thus it would be prudent to do a test patch. Also, the finish lasts much longer than transparent stains and goes up to three years. 
  • Semi-Solid. This shade is excellent when you want a heavier color application but still want to see the lumber underneath. In addition, it is suitable for aging decks as you can hide the wood’s fading color.
  • Solid. This tone hides the wood grain and is ideal for old decks with many flaws. More so, it delivers a higher UV resistance than other hues and features the longest lifespan of up to five years.

Consider the Deck’s Age and Design

The deck will experience inevitable damage and multiple restaining sessions as it ages. Therefore, getting a darker or more opaque deck stain is better for an old deck.

But it is okay to go for a lighter and more transparent product when working with a new deck.

In addition, an older deck may have more imperfections, and you are better off covering them with a darker and more opaque formula.

However, please repair or replace damaged and broken deck supports and boards.

Lastly, always choose a color that compliments your deck and home’s design.

Also, you may want a hue that looks good with the surrounding landscape and vegetation. Therefore, please do your research before selecting a product.

Is the Deck Already Stained?

Always think about the deck’s condition before reapplying the stain. For example, a solid stain covers the wood, and applying a tinted stain may not do much for the final look.

Moreover, you cannot expect the surface to resemble fresh wood without stripping the old stain.

On top of that, the hue will change the new stain even if the older stain was semi-transparent.

For instance, a red-tinted finish will change the appearance of a blue-tinted one. Therefore, you will have to sand the surface to bare wood for a better outcome.

Fortunately, you can pressure wash old decks before applying a new stain.

This way, you lighten the deck’s color and create a perfect surface for any stain you choose.

Also, remember to test the stain colors to determine the final finish.


Oil-based and water-based stains are a significant addition to your shelf.

They are suitable for fences, decks, and other outdoor structures and protect them from harsh environmental conditions, mold, and mildew.

However, woodworkers have difficulty determining when and how to use these products. Therefore, they engage in discussions like:

Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain

Oil-based and water-based deck stains have different benefits.

For instance, water-based stains have lower VOC issues while oil-based products penetrate deeper into the wood grain and offer more durability.

Therefore, it is prudent to understand better how the products differ and when to use them.

In a nutshell, your choice will depend on the stain’s durability, the deck’s wood type, age, design, time and effort you need to apply the formula, and the recommended maintenance routine.

Image of a woodworker wearing hearing protectors for woodworking

Tyron Otieno

Tyron is an avid woodworker and writer. He founded this website to help other woodworkers, whether hobbyists or professionals by sharing his knowledge and experiencie after a decade of woodworking.

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